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With the future of the Fitzroy River at a crossroads, calls grow louder on both sides for change

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Kimberley Traditional Owners have again called for the national heritage-listed Fitzroy River to be protected from irrigation proposals at the Fitzroy River Film Festival held in Broome on Wednesday, June 1.

The WA Government is expected to decide this year whether to allow more than 300 billion litres of water extraction from Martuwarra Fitzroy River each year, a move proponents say would greatly improve jobs prospects and economic activity in the region.

Among backers of the irrigation proposal is Gina Rinehart's Hancock Agriculture, and the Harris family who are Murray-Darling cotton farmers.

Water would be pumped from the Fitzroy River and stored in tanks and dams on the river's floodplains.

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Held during National Reconciliation Week, the festival showcased voices of Martuwarra Traditional Owners in the Voices of the River series.

The series raises concerns dams and irrigated agriculture projects could pollute the river's clean water and threaten critically endangered sawfish.

Fitzroy River is also culturally significant to Indigenous people. Martuwarra Traditional Owners grew up along Fitzroy River, and it represents stories of their people, heritage and spiritual connection to it.

Kimberley Land Council chairman Anthony Watson grew up along Fitzroy River.

He is a Nyikina, Mangala, Karajarri, Yawuru and Jabirr Jabirr man and connects to the river.

"I got my totem from Fitzroy River," he said.

"I learned to respect life and culture and value the significance of what the river can provide."

Mr Watson said Traditional Owners were not properly consulted by the WA Government and opposed large scale development.

"Traditional Owners of Fitzroy River never made any decision towards meeting the government halfway and having a multi-purpose industrialisation of Fitzroy River," he said.

Presented by The Kimberley Land Council, Environs Kimberley and The Kimberley â€" Like Nowhere Else, more than 140 people attended.

A State Government spokesperson said the government has had several discussions across the catchment.

"Since 2018, this has included two stakeholder forums attended by the ministers for Aboriginal Affairs, Agriculture and Food, Regional Development, Environment and Water, over 90 meetings with Traditional Owners and their representative organisations, and over 50 meetings with industry representatives, pastoralists, education institutions and environmental groups," the spokesperson said.

A discussion paper was released by Department of Water and Environmental Regulation in November 2020 which attracted some 43,000 submissions, mostly through online campaigns.

Gogo Station development manager Phillip Hams said the water allocation plan will create jobs for Aboriginal people in Fitzroy Crossing. Picture: Fierra Surrao.

"Approximately a third of submissions were from Western Australia, with two per cent of all submissions identifying as from the Kimberley," the spokesperson said.

Gogo Station development manager Phillip Hams has applied to take floodwater from a Fitzroy River tributary called Blue Bush Creek.

Gogo wants to take 50 gigalitres yearly, less than one per cent of average annual flow of Fitzroy River.

This water will grow cattle fodder on about 5,000 hectares of spare station land.

Mr Hams said extra fodder meant cattle would fatten faster, and could be exported year-round, leading to more jobs in a region where nearly half of residents are on unemployment benefits.

"Setting up the project will create jobs like earthworks, farming operation, and cattle feeding systems," he said.

"More cattle will need to be mustered and put on trucks for transport."

Mr Hams said he sees young Aboriginal people drink along Great Northern Highway near Gogo station, and hears about youth crime in Fitzroy.

He hopes creating jobs would provide purpose for young people and lessen reliance on jobseeker payments.

Anne Poelina is a Nyikina Warrwa Traditional Owner from the lower Fitzroy River.

She is also Martuwarra Fitzroy Council chairwoman which formed in 2018 after growing concerns about water extraction proposals for Fitzroy River.

"We call it Martuwarra but it means 'river of life' because it holds life and it gives life," Poelina said.

"There needs to be a way that people in the region understand what the government has proposed, because at the moment there is not a lot of information getting out there so people do not really know."

Ms Poelina said Traditional Owners needed to unite for the river.

Story by Fierra Surrao

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